OneFuture Coachella Valley: Building a Strong Local Workforce

OneFuture Coachella Valley: Building a Strong Local Workforce

School districts, local colleges, businesses, and donors have come together to help thousands of low-income students in Southern California achieve career readiness and attend local colleges

By Carnegie Corporation of New York March 26, 2024

This article is part of a series featuring winners of Profiles in Collective Leadership, an initiative by Carnegie Corporation of New York, in partnership with the nonprofit Transcend, that recognizes outstanding local partnerships that educate youth, bolster the workforce, and demonstrate the power of working together. The 10 nonpartisan collaborations in urban, suburban, and rural areas across the country draw on the strengths of local government, education, nonprofit, business, and health care professionals to catalyze socioeconomic mobility and civic engagement in their communities. The 10 recognized partnerships in 8 states have been awarded $200,000 grants and will act as exemplars, sharing what they have learned with each other and more broadly.

Guadalupe Arreola’s parents brought her from Mexico to California’s Coachella Valley as a toddler so that she could get an education. Her father, a landscaper for a golf club, hadn’t gone to school past first grade. Studying hard earned her admission to the University of California, Los Angeles, but as one of the few Latinas in her science classes, she struggled with “imposter syndrome.”

Arreola found crucial support from OneFuture Coachella Valley, a nonprofit that brings together a broad array of partners – three K–12 school districts, local colleges, businesses and donors – to help thousands of low-income students get to and through college and start promising careers. OneFuture gave her scholarships, financial aid workshops, and real-time advice for overcoming hurdles, such as how to find free tutoring.

Without OneFuture’s encouragement, Arreola said, “I wouldn’t have known how to navigate the higher educational system. As a first-generation student, you often feel lost.”

Arreola, now 27, finished her bachelor’s degree and is training to be a physician’s assistant. Her story lies at the heart of OneFuture’s mission: To launch young people into jobs that pay well while creating a talent pipeline in a resort area in dire need of skilled workers, especially in health care.

The sun-drenched valley, which includes Palm Springs and its surroundings, is known for its music festivals, tennis tournaments, and growing group of wealthy retirees. But it also has families facing severe economic hardship, including migrant workers farming bell peppers, citrus, dates, and table grapes.

The valley’s three school districts together serve more than 65,000 K–12 students – nearly all qualify for subsidized lunch and most are Hispanic. Like students from low-income backgrounds nationwide, they lag far behind their more affluent peers in getting college degrees.

OneFuture grew out of a regional push, begun in 2005, to solve entwined problems: Only 30 percent of Coachella Valley residents had postsecondary education, and local employers were frustrated that they had to recruit from outside the valley to fill 80 percent of their high-level positions.

The partnership rallied more than 100 organizations to commit to shared goals. They set high targets, such as having 70 percent of graduates earning a college degree or certificate, raising millions for scholarships, internet access for all, and opening career-oriented academies in high schools.

“We’re bringing together a whole cross section of partners who have agreed to step outside of just their own agenda, into the common agenda, so we can do bigger things than any one of us could do alone,” said Sheila Thornton, president of OneFuture. “That was the broken record, that we’re going to do this together.”

By the Numbers

OneFuture scholarship recipients have completed 1,165 bachelor’s degrees, 488 associate’s degrees, 171 master’s degrees, 17 doctoral degrees, and 87 certificates from 2009 to 2021.

$17 million in scholarships have been awarded to nearly 3,000 students.

Nearly 8,000 high school students study in career-oriented programs.

OneFuture became a standalone nonprofit in 2017 and has a yearly budget of $3.5 million. Now local high schools offer 30 career academies, such as health care, hospitality, engineering, and public service, and 36 percent of students attend them. Seniors can graduate with certificates in Adobe design, IT networking, health care, welding, and auto mechanics that can land them jobs if they want to head straight to work.

Academics improved as well. In 2012, only 26 percent of the graduating seniors had the coursework and test scores to qualify for the state’s colleges. By 2022, that jumped to 45 percent. Additionally, local college enrollment has increased by 18 percent since 2010.

To increase college enrollment, the partnership kicked off a competition to boost the number of students who filled out financial aid forms. Its success inspired the state to follow suit. Last year, 75 percent of Coachella Valley seniors filled out the aid forms. OneFuture offers college planning workshops, about $1 million yearly in scholarships (along with matches from partners), and paid summer internships in health care administration, IT, public health, and other health fields. Dedicated projects focus on students from low-income families, first-generation students, young men, Black students, and children of migrant workers, who are at extra risk of falling behind academically.

Some alumni call OneFuture a lifeline. Dulce Lucero, a U.S. citizen born in California, was raised with the help of older siblings while their mother “followed the crop” to pick lettuce and jalapeños. In Lucero’s sophomore year of high school, their mother was deported while in the process of obtaining U.S. residency. At a time of intense fear and uncertainty, Lucero learned of OneFuture. The nonprofit’s workshops taught her about mental health care, professional etiquette, and financial literacy. “Some of our parents didn’t even have bank accounts,” she said.

Lucero received scholarships from OneFuture to go to UCLA. Now a 24-year-old graduate, she works at California State University, San Bernardino Palm Desert Campus, for a partnership with OneFuture that helps migrant students overcome similar strains. “I have a passion for helping my community,” Lucero said. “I’m so grateful to be a part of that.”

It is not easy to track long-term college completion rates for OneFuture participants. Last year, a consultant called Health Assessment and Research for Communities reviewed 2,273 student records that were available for its scholarship recipients, largely those who graduated from high school since 2010. It found that 1,401 – or 61 percent – earned a degree of some kind, including associate’s degrees and industry certificates. Among degree earners, 83 percent earned at least a bachelor’s and 12 percent earned a master’s degree.

By the report’s data, those OneFuture’s alumni on average fared better than low-income peers nationwide. The Pell Institute, for example, finds only 15 percent of students from the lowest income quartile complete four-year college degrees by age 24, and 59 percent from the highest quartile.

Challenges abound for OneFuture. Those involved say routine turnover in leadership positions can slow progress. Funders often don’t pay for the glue that keeps people working together, such as the organizational staff it takes to push initiatives forward. Some employers need to be convinced that their investments now will lead to good hires for their own companies one day.

The stakes are high. Ken Wheat, chief operating officer for Eisenhower Health, estimates the valley needs approximately 400 new nurses a year in the pipeline. As the ranks of the area’s retirees expand and get older, he said, the local health care industry’s acute need for staff is “only going to grow exponentially.”

“Educational outcomes contribute to a thriving regional economy,” said Kelly May-Vollmar, superintendent of Desert Sands Unified School District. “Working with intention with our industry and community partners benefits everyone.”

Learn more about the Profiles in Collective Leadership initiative at